At what age can a child be left alone at home? It all depends on context and the maturity of the child.
At what age can you leave your child alone at home for a short time? Contrary to popular belief, the law in Quebec does not indicate a minimum age at which children can be left at home alone. Context and the maturity of the child should be taken into account. Here are the experts’ recommendations to help you make the right decision.
The Canada Safety Council recommends that a child under the age of 10 should not be left alone and that a child under the age of 12 should not be left to supervise another child. Furthermore, it is recommended that even a child aged 10 should be provided guidance and supervision from an adult at a distance.
However, these recommendations are only guidelines. On the one hand, it may be acceptable to leave a younger child alone at home for a short period of time; on the other hand, an older child may not yet be ready to be left alone.
Therefore, various factors must be taken into consideration when assessing whether a child can be left alone at home, regardless of their age, including:
- Personality of the child. Some children are more mature and responsible than others. They are more self-sufficient and show initiative in their daily lives at home. Conversely, a restless, anxious child who is easily startled or tends to hide when hearing noises may not yet be ready to be left alone, even after age 10;
- Duration of the absence of the parents. A child cannot be left alone too long. However, their autonomy can be gradually improved by leaving them alone for short periods during the day. For example, when you feel that your child is ready for this step, you could leave them alone at home for 10 minutes while you are running an errand, or for a period of 30 minutes between their return from school and your return from work. If you need to leave for a few hours, however, a child under the age of 12 must be supervised by a responsible and competent person;
- Time of day when parents are absent. Children feel more insecure when left alone at home in the evening. You should thus avoid leaving them alone in the evening when they are still learning to become autonomous;
- Appropriate supervision. Trusting a child’s autonomy does not mean giving them full responsibility to take care of themselves. The child must be able to rely on support in case of emergency or distress. For example, they should be able to contact you, a neighbour, or a relative who lives nearby. In addition, before leaving a child alone at home, even briefly, you should give them safety instructions and specific rules to follow, such as returning directly home after school, not answering the door, and not mentioning on the phone that they are alone at home.
Although no law in Quebec specifies the age at which a child can be left alone at home, the Director of Youth Protection (DYP) can investigate when it receives a complaint about a child under the age of 12 left alone at home, without supervision by a trusted adult. Parents are responsible for ensuring the physical and psychological safety of their child.
Assessing whether a child is ready to be left alone
If you need to leave home and are considering leaving your child alone, here are some questions to ask yourself before making a decision:
Is my child used to following instructions?
Is my child preoccupied or lacking confidence?
Does my child know what to do with their time during my absence?
Does my child tend to misbehave when left alone?
In general, how does my child react in unexpected situations?
Can my child contact me or can I contact them during my absence? If you do not have a landline at home, make sure your child has a cell phone or tablet they can use to make calls, or any other means of communicating with you or the emergency services, if necessary.
Is there a trusted person who can get to my home quickly (e.g. grandparent, neighbour, friend) if necessary?
If your child does not feel ready to be left alone at home, do not blame them. Each child is different and evolves at their own pace. If in doubt, ask someone you trust to stay with them in your absence.
Precautions to be taken when leaving a child alone
If you decide to leave your child alone for a short time, be sure to take all necessary measures to ensure their safety. It is important to take these precautions, even for a short absence of a few minutes. An accident or unfortunate incident can occur at any time.
When you return home, ask your child if everything went well. Make sure that they are confident in their autonomy and are not feeling insecure.
- Make sure your child knows the phone number to contact you at all times. They should also be able to rely on a neighbour or a reliable person who lives nearby.
- Limit the length of your absence based on your child’s age, personality, and experiences with autonomy.
- Give your child clear safety instructions. For example, remind them to lock the doors and not open if someone rings the doorbell.
- Make sure they know what to do in case of emergency (e.g. fire, injury).
- Let them know that they should never say that they are alone when they answer the phone or reply to messages on the Internet. Instead, they should say that the adult in the house is busy. Ideally, get a caller ID and voice mail and tell your child to answer only when you call.
- Store all potentially hazardous equipment and products (e.g., alcohol, matches, toxic chemicals, medications) in a safe place out of the reach of your child. This includes firearms.
- Prepare with your child a basic first aid kit as well as an emergency kit to be used in case of power outage (flashlight and spare batteries for home appliances). Store them in an easily accessible location.
- If your child is home alone after returning from school, ask them to call you or a trusted person as soon as they arrive, and instruct them not to wander or play outside.
- Leave them a list of tasks or activities to do to keep them busy. Suggest that they do their homework, set the table for dinner, or clean up their bedroom.
Red Cross Stay Safe! course
The 5- to 6-hour Stay Safe!
course provides children with basic first aid techniques and skills to ensure their safety when they are alone at home or outside. To be eligible for this course, the child must be 9 years of age or older (or have completed grade 3).
Things to keep in mind
The Canada Safety Council recommends that a child under the age of 10 should not be left alone and that a child under the age of 12 should not be left to supervise another child.
At first, a child should be left alone only for short periods ranging from 10 to 30 minutes. They must be able to call or go to a trusted person at any time.
Regardless of the child’s age, it is important to take all necessary measures to ensure that they are confident in their autonomy and do not feel insecure.
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2021
Photo : iStock.com/Sneksy
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